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FAREWELL ADDRESS TO THE NATION
January 11, 1989
This is the 34th time I'll speak to you from the Oval Office and the last.
We've been together eight years now, and soon it'll be time for me to go.
But before I do, I wanted to share some thoughts, some of which I've been
saving for a long time.
It's been the honor of my life to be your president. So many of you have
written the past few weeks to say thanks, but I could say as much to you.
Nancy and I are grateful for the opportunity you gave us to serve.
One of the things about the presidency is that you're always somewhat
apart. You spend a lot of time going by too fast in a car someone else is
driving, and seeing the people through tinted glass--the parents holding up
a child, and the wave you saw too late and couldn't return. And so many
times I wanted to stop and reach out from behind the glass, and connect.
Well, maybe I can do a little of that tonight.
People ask how I feel about leaving. And the fact is, "parting is such sweet
sorrow." The sweet part is California, and the ranch and freedom. The
sorrow--the goodbyes, of course, and leaving this beautiful place.
You know, down the hall and up the stairs from this office is the part of the
White House where the president and his family live. There are a few
favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in
the morning. The view is over the grounds here to the Washington
Monument, and then the Mall and the Jefferson Memorial. But on mornings
when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the
Potomac, and the Virginia shore. Someone said that's the view Lincoln had
when he saw the smoke rising from the Battle of Bull Run. I see more
prosaic things: the grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make
their way to work, now and then a sailboat on the river.
I've been thinking a bit at that window. I've been reflecting on what the past
eight years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a
refrain is a nautical one--a small story about a big ship, and a refugee and a
sailor. It was back in the early '80s, at the height of the boat people. And
the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the
South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young,
smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little
boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to
America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and
safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied
the sailor on deck and stood up and called out to him. He yelled, "Hello,
American sailor. Hello, freedom man."
A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a
letter, couldn't get out of his mind. And when I saw it, neither could I.
Because that's what it was to be an American in the 1980s. We stood,
again, for freedom. I know we always have, but in the past few years the
world again, and in a way, we ourselves rediscovered it.
It's been quite a journey this decade, and we held together through some
stormy seas. And at the end, together, we are reaching our destination.
The fact is, from Grenada to the Washington and Moscow summits, from the
recession of '81 to '82, to the expansion that began in late '82 and continues
to this day, we've made a difference. The way I see it, there were two great
triumphs, two things that I'm proudest of. One is the economic recovery, in
which the people of America created--and filled--19 million new jobs. The
other is the recovery of our morale. America is respected again in the world
and looked to for leadership.
Something that happened to me a few years ago reflects some of this. It
was back in 1981, and I was attending my first big economic summit, which
was held that year in Canada. The meeting place rotates among the member
countries. The opening meeting was a formal dinner for the heads of
government of the seven industrialized nations. Now, I sat there like the
new kid in school and listened, and it was all Francois this and Helmut that.
They dropped titles and spoke to one another on a first-name basis. Well, at
one point I sort of leaned in and said, "My name's Ron." Well, in that same
year, we began the actions we felt would ignite an economic comeback--cut
taxes and regulation, started to cut spending. And soon the recovery began.
Two years later another economic summit, with pretty much the same cast.
At the big opening meeting we all got together, and all of a sudden, just for
a moment, I saw that everyone was just sitting there looking at me. And
one of them broke the silence. "Tell us about the American miracle," he said.
Well, back in 1980, when I was running for president, it was all so different.
Some pundits said our programs would result in catastrophe. Our views on
foreign affairs would cause war. Our plans for the economy would cause
inflation to soar and bring about economic collapse. I even remember one
highly respected economist saying, back in 1982, that "the engines of
economic growth have shut down here, and they're likely to stay that way for
years to come." Well, he and the other opinion leaders were wrong. The fact
is, what they called "radical" was really "right." What they called "dangerous"
was just "desperately needed."
And in all of that time I won a nickname, "The Great Communicator." But I
never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It
was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great
things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the
heart of a great nation--from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in
principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan
revolution. Well, I'll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the
great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.
Common sense told us that when you put a big tax on something, the
people will produce less of it. So, we cut the people's tax rates, and the
people produced more than ever before. The economy bloomed like a plant
that had been cut back and could now grow quicker and stronger. Our
economic program brought about the longest peacetime expansion in our
history: real family income up, the poverty rate down, entrepreneurship
booming, and an explosion in research and new technology. We're exporting
more than ever because American industry became more competitive and at
the same time, we summoned the national will to knock down protectionist
walls abroad instead of erecting them at home. Common sense also told us
that to preserve the peace, we'd have to become strong again after years of
weakness and confusion. So, we rebuilt our defenses, and this New Year we
toasted the new peacefulness around the globe. Not only have the
superpowers actually begun to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear
weapons--and hope for even more progress is bright--but the regional
conflicts that rack the globe are also beginning to cease. The Persian Gulf is
no longer a war zone. The Soviets are leaving Afghanistan. The Vietnamese
are preparing to pull out of Cambodia, and an American-mediated accord will
soon send 50,000 Cuban troops home from Angola.
The lesson of all this was, of course, that because we're a great nation, our
challenges seem complex. It will always be this way. But as long as we
remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always
be ours. And something else we learned: Once you begin a great movement,
there's no telling where it will end. We meant to change a nation, and
instead, we changed a world.
Countries across the globe are turning to free markets and free speech and
turning away from ideologies of the past. For them, the great rediscovery of
the 1980s has been that, lo and behold, the moral way of government is the
practical way of government: Democracy, the profoundly good, is also the
When you've got to the point when you can celebrate the anniversaries of
your 39th birthday, you can sit back sometimes, review your life, and see it
flowing before you. For me there was a fork in the river, and it was right in
the middle of my life. I never meant to go into politics. It wasn't my
intention when I was young. But I was raised to believe you had to pay your
way for the blessings bestowed on you. I was happy with my career in the
entertainment world, but I ultimately went into politics because I wanted to
protect something precious.
Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed
the course of government, and with three little words: "We the people." "We
the people" tell the government what to do, it doesn't tell us. "We the
people" are the driver, the government is the car. And we decide where it
should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world's
constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their
privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which "We the people" tell
the government what it is allowed to do. "We the people" are free. This
belief has been the underlying basis for everything I've tried to do these
past eight years.
But back in the 1960s, when I began, it seemed to me that we'd begun
reversing the order of things--that through more and more rules and
regulations and confiscatory taxes, the government was taking more of our
money, more of our options, and more of our freedom. I went into politics in
part to put up my hand and say, "Stop." I was a citizen politician, and it
seemed the right thing for a citizen to do.
I think we have stopped a lot of what needed stopping. And I hope we have
once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is
limited. There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable
as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.
Nothing is less free than pure communism, and yet we have, the past few
years, forged a satisfying new closeness with the Soviet Union. I've been
asked if this isn't a gamble, and my answer is no because we're basing our
actions not on words but deeds. The detente of the 1970s was based not on
actions but promises. They'd promise to treat their own people and the
people of the world better. But the gulag was still the gulag, and the state
was still expansionist, and they still waged proxy wars in Africa, Asia, and
Well, this time, so far, it's different. President Gorbachev has brought about
some internal democratic reforms and begun the withdrawal from
Afghanistan. He has also freed prisoners whose names I've given him every
time we've met.
But life has a way of reminding you of big things through small incidents.
Once, during the heady days of the Moscow summit, Nancy and I decided to
break off from the entourage one afternoon to visit the shops on Arbat
Street--that's a little street just off Moscow's main shopping area. Even
though our visit was a surprise, every Russian there immediately recognized
us and called out our names and reached for our hands. We were just about
swept away by the warmth. You could almost feel the possibilities in all that
joy. But within seconds, a KGB detail pushed their way toward us and began
pushing and shoving the people in the crowd. It was an interesting moment.
It reminded me that while the man on the street in the Soviet Union yearns
for peace, the government is Communist. And those who run it are
Communists, and that means we and they view such issues as freedom and
human rights very differently.
We must keep up our guard, but we must also continue to work together to
lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust. My view is that President
Gorbachev is different from previous Soviet leaders. I think he knows some
of the things wrong with his society and is trying to fix them. We wish him
well. And we'll continue to work to make sure that the Soviet Union that
eventually emerges from this process is a less threatening one. What it all
boils down to is this. I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as
long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long
as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don't, at first
pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It's still trust but verify.
still play, but cut the cards. It's still watch closely. And don't be afraid to
see what you see.
I've been asked if I have any regrets. Well, I do. The deficit is one. I've
been talking a great deal about that lately, but tonight isn't for arguments.
And I'm going to hold my tongue. But an observation: I've had my share of
victories in the Congress, but what few people noticed is that I never won
anything you didn't win for me. They never saw my troops, they never saw
Reagan's regiments, the American people. You won every battle with every
call you made and letter you wrote demanding action. Well, action is still
needed. If we're to finish the job, Reagan's regiments will have to become
the Bush brigades. Soon he'll be the chief, and he'll need you every bit as
much as I did. Finally, there is a great tradition of warnings in presidential
farewells, and I've got one that's been on my mind for some time. But oddly
enough it starts with one of the things I'm proudest of in the past eight
years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism. This
national feeling is good, but it won't count for much, and it won't last unless
it's grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.
An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough
job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the
long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age
grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means
to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and
an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn't get these things from your
family, you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street
who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could
get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed, you could get a
sense of patriotism from popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic
values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was
like that, too, through the mid-'60s
But now, we're about to enter the '90s, and some things have changed.
Younger parents aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is
the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the
popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is
back, but we haven't reinstitutionalized it. We've got to do a better job of
getting across that America is freedom--freedom of speech, freedom of
religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile;
it needs protection.
So, we've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's
important: Why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what
those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, four years ago on the 40th
anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing of her late
father, who'd fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn,
and she said, "We will always remember, we will never forget what the boys
of Normandy did." Well, let's help her keep her word. If we forget what we
did, we won't know who we are. I'm warning of an eradication of the
American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American
spirit. Let's start with some basics: more attention to American history and a
greater emphasis on civic ritual. And let me offer lesson No. 1 about
America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So,
tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your
parents haven't been teaching you what it means to be an American, let 'em
know and nail 'em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.
And that's about all I have to say tonight. Except for one thng. The past few
days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the
"shining city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote
it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important
because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here
on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he
was looking for a home that would be free.
I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever
quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall
proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and
teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free
ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city
walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will
and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still.
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure,
and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that; after 200
years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge,
and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a
beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims
from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
We've done our part. And as I walk off into the city streets, a final word to
the men and women of the Reagan revolution, the men and women across
America who for eight years did the work that brought America back. My
friends: We did it. We weren't just marking time. We made a difference. We
made the city stronger. We made the city freer, and we left her in good
hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all.
And so, good-bye, God bless you, and God bless the United States of
Carrie was established in June of 1993.
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